In Vivo Studies on the Control of Gene Expression and Protein Degradation

Cellular homeostasis is maintained by tightly regulated gene networks, controlled notably at the levels of transcription, mRNA processing, and protein post-translational modification and turnover. This thesis focuses on two of these regulatory steps, namely gene transcription and protein stability. I first explored the impact of the KRAB-ZFP/KAP1 gene regulation system on liver function. KRAB-ZFPs constitute the largest family of transcription factors encoded by mouse and humans, yet their physiological roles and gene targets remain mostly elusive. Conversely, their molecular mechanism of action has been rather well characterized, as they can recognize DNA in a sequence-specific manner and recruit the universal co-factor KAP1 (also known as TRIM28), which in turn serves as a scaffold for various heterochromatin-inducing effectors. Several studies have shed some light on the roles played by this system in embryonic tissues, but its functions in the adult remain almost completely unknown. As chromatin regulation has been shown to be a major factor in the control of metabolism, we decided to investigate the role of KRAB-ZFP/KAP1 in the liver, an organ central to this process. For this, we generated conditional liver-specific Kap1 KO mice, the study of which revealed a strikingly sex-specific phenotype, with early-onset steatosis and age-related tumorigenesis restricted to males, contrasting with the mild metabolic disturbances recorded in Kap1-deleted females. Underlying this phenotype, our combined transcriptome and chromatin analyses revealed that KAP1 controls sexually dimorphic genes notably involved in hormone, drug and xenobiotic metabolism. Finally, by using a recently developed technique for direct RNA quantification, we established the range of KRAB-ZFPs expressed in the liver and likely responsible for at least part of the observed effects. This study thus demonstrates the central role of the KRAB/KAP1 system in control of sexual dimorphism, responses to xenobiotic stress and metabolic control in the liver, and further links disturbances in these processes with hepatic carcinogenesis. In parallel, in an effort to pursue a multidisciplinary training combining skills in biology and chemistry, I worked towards the development of a method to study the half-life of proteins in vivo. Protein turnover critically influences many biological functions, yet methods have been lacking to assess this parameter in vivo. Capitalizing on an in vitro technology previously developed in Kai Johnsson's laboratory, I demonstrated how chemical labeling can be used to measure the half-life of resident intracellular and extracellular proteins in living mice. Our approach is based on labeling of SNAP-tag-fusion proteins with fluorescent probes. First, we verified that SNAP-tag substrates have wide bio-availability in mice and can be used for the specific in vivo labeling of SNAP-tag fusion proteins. We then applied near-infrared probes to perform non-invasive imaging of in vivo labeled tumors. Finally, we used SNAP-mediated chemical pulse-chase labeling to measuring in vivo the half-life of different extra- and intracellular proteins, including KAP1. Importantly, this tagging technology can be applied to any protein amenable to expression as a fusion partner, whether cell-associated or secreted. Furthermore, because the SNAP-tag chemical labeling allows for a large array of probes also suited for experiments aimed at manipulating and monitoring protein function in vivo, such as cross-linking, pull-down or FRET, this methodology opens broad perspectives for studying protein function in living animals.


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